Rio Carnival dances toward wild finale, swatting Zika aside
RIO DE JANEIRO - Agence France-Presse
REUTERS photoSwatting aside fears over the Zika virus, the glittering dancers of the Rio Carnival samba championship and their adoring fans were primed Feb. 7 for their first all-night parade.
After a fortnight of street parties, thousands of gallons of beer, and the day and night sound of drumming and singing throughout Brazil's most iconic city, the really serious Carnival fun was set to begin at 23:30 GMT.
Kicking off after sunset and going all through the night to dawn on Monday, the 12 best samba ensembles, known as schools, were to strut their stuff in front of some 70,000 people in Rio's specially built stadium, the Sambadrome.
The contest, which goes through a second and final night on Monday, is the climax of the annual Rio Carnival, possibly the world's biggest party, with some five million people, including one million tourists, estimated to take part.
This year, Rio's fiesta is overshadowed by the Zika virus, painful recession, battles over the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and a corruption scandal reaching into the heart of the political and business elite.
The gloomy backdrop extends to a fall in funding for the hugely expensive samba school extravaganzas, whose floats and costumes for thousands of dancers and musicians take a year to prepare.
The productions in Rio are expected to be less over the top this year, while in 48 Brazilian cities, the Carnival was cancelled altogether.
Brazilians might be better known as passionate football supporters, but there's no less excitement at the Sambadrome where fans are vehement in their allegiance to a particular school.
For all their perfect choreography and literally dazzling costumes, the samba schools rely on the enthusiasm of amateur performers. Each school is rooted in a specific neighborhood, many of them deeply impoverished favelas, where there may not be proper sanitation but music is king.
Schools like Beija-Flor, Salgueiro or Mangueira that make it to the Sunday and Monday night parades are the cream of more than 100 ensembles across the city. Each gets about an hour to parade through the Sambadrome, with a themed set of costumes and floats that are not only lavishly decorated but often have moving parts, so that they, too, seem alive.
The event is so important in the life of Rio that the mayor even symbolically hands over the city keys to King Momo, the elected leader of the Carnival.
"With great happiness, brotherly love and peace, I declare the best Carnival on Earth open -- our Carnival in the Marvelous City," the dancing king said at his investiture Friday.
Given its economic and political woes, Brazil hardly needed another crisis. But the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, gatecrashed the party.
Zika is suspected of causing a rash of serious birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected while pregnant. There are also indications that Zika may cause a serious neurological disorder.
Adding to the fear are unconfirmed reports that the virus may also be spread through contact with human saliva, blood or semen.
To fight back, Brazilian authorities have sent out the army and municipal health workers across the country to tackle potential mosquito breeding sites and to educate the public.
The Sambadrome was subjected to fumigation ahead of the Carnival and similar fumigating teams will be deployed throughout the city before the Olympics start in exactly six months.
With Brazil in the epicenter of a regional surge in Zika infections, many -- especially expectant mothers -- are spooked.
Sales of repellant are up sharply, manufacturers, say, with one, Osler, reporting an 800 percent increase in the December 2015-January 2016 period, year on year.
However, Rio's Carnival goers appear to be having too much fun to care much.
At a huge street party in the center of the city on Saturday, dancers in skimpy costumes said they did not expect to be bitten by mosquitoes and hadn't bothered with repellant.
"I'm not afraid," said Cristiane Ruiz, 30, whose jean shorts and bright orange bikini top left very little covered.
"I don't think an area of the city like this is bad for mosquitoes, because there isn't much vegetation."